Thursday, April 12, 2012

2012 Used Oil Recycling in the US

I first became aware of the problem of improper disposal of motor oil and of the pollution of my local watershed of Little Falls in Bethesda, MD, which runs into one of the drinking water reservoirs of our nation’s capital in 1976. I was outraged.

My father’s 40-year career as a congressional aide to both the U.S. House’s Ways and Means Committee and to the Senate Finance Committee gave me firsthand exposure to the workings of oil tax subsidies. Ironically, we do little to benefit from oil pollution prevention although more people recycle now than vote. Still, we have a long way to go in dealing with oil waste by-products.

Last year the nation’s leading energy expert estimated that the US spent between $49 billion and $100 billion on energy subsidies in 2007. In the late 1970’s, millions of dollars were given to states following on a multi-billion dollar law suit settlement from oil overcharges awarded to the Department of Energy to promote energy conservation measures. And yet, the efforts for promoting petroleum product stewardship have been greatly under-funded by both the private and public sectors, and if funded,the money was poorly allocated and irresponsibly used.

A 1980 Parade Magazine article , “We Can Stop Wasting our Oil,” brought national attention to DIY oil recovery. This article cited a pitiful 5-10% recycling rate, with 85 million DIYers estimated to be throwing away 200 million gallons of used oil. Why do auto batteries have an 85 percent recycling rate and motor oil only a 20-35 percent recycling rate?

Recently Valvoline ads on the Car Talk radio show and at the Daytona 500 promoting their use of 50% recycled oil inspired me to update my past used oil updates.

Currently, the United States consumes 19.6 million barrels of oil per day. Americans use over 7 billion barrels of oil products annually. The USA, which constitutes 4% of the world’s population, uses over 20% of the world’s oil and produces 22% of climate-altering CO2.

We inject one trillion tons of oilfield waste into deep wells in addition to the 3 billion tons of oil and gas wastes we generate yearly through oil and gas exploration and production in the USA. How much waste is contributed by "fracking" by natural gas is hard to determine. The last publicly-generated report to Congress on this subject was made by the Environmental Protection Agency back in 1986. At the back end, we waste 400 million gallons of used oil and discard hundreds of millions of oil filters yearly in the United States.

Total US motor oil sales have been flat for several years now despite these increases. However the economic recession and financial downturn has probably increased this for the DIY portion; there has been little info in trade journals on the DIY portion. DIY decline is estimated at around. 40%, and or Do-it-For-Me changes are at 60%. It is important to recognize that this is based on the volume of oil sold to DIYers, and likely does not represent the number of DIYers. It is not clear whether the DIYers are driving more miles between changes or if their numbers are declining. Oil Filters

The filter industry has claimed a 50% recycling rate for years, however this is questionable. The filter industry has refused to release any of their data for peer review and is actively engaged in lobbying the Federal, state and local governments to not enact any regulations on the disposal of used oil filters. No other used filter study has come even close to a 50% recycling rate. For example, the California recycling program can only reach 7%. There is no data to make any national claim.

One good indicator to track actual oil changes instead of folks who buy motor oil to “top-off’ the engine is to follow oil filter sales. In 1998 there were 450 million light-duty oil filters sold in the United States, while 778 million light-duty filters were purchased in 2002 according to FMC. However the industry wish not to share their most recent numbers.

The API today is the body that reports on our oil and gas waste. Their Model Used Oil Legislation encourages states to tax motor oil sales to fund used oil recycling programs. California, South Carolina and other states that have a tax on motor oil have the best programs. Follow the money and you will find a management and reporting system. Several decades ago, some states ruled that used oil was a hazardous waste. Several of these states, such as California and South Carolina, developed model programs. However product stewardship is lacking.

Used oil recovery will expand once there is greater producer responsibility. End of life manufacturer responsibility and product stewardship is growing in Europe and Canada, and increasingly in the US (for electronics, mercury lighting, batteries, and carpet). The state tax approach, like California's, is antiquated and relies too heavily on the government and taxpayer. We need to see programs where the product producer is responsible for establishing end of life management for their product. Why should they get a free ride to the disposal or even to the recycling facility, when we don't allow them a free ride on the extraction and production side of getting oil?

Some would disclaim recycling and re-refining of used oil. They claim it is more energy intensive than using virgin feedstock. This only takes recycling out of context. We attribute depletion benefit and other forms of corporate welfare to make oil cheap; recycling is unattractive under the current market conditions because the whole system is designed to facilitate resource extraction.

DIYers though have declined from 60 percent to less than 40 percent. Also in the last 30 years, our energy consumption and population has increased by 40% and vehicle miles driven have increased by 150% . Current economic factors, the need for national filter sales and other factors can give us better feedback of where used motor consumer recovery is at.

In the past six years, the number of motor oil recycling listings included in's Recycling Directory, the largest recycling directory in the U.S., has tripled to 36,000[1]. These community–based locations include auto parts stores, service stations or local government agencies that collect used motor oil. Go to or call 1-800-CLEANUP.

Good public education/outreach and convenient collection locations (ideally curbside collection) are the two key facets to getting consumer participation. Yet, without funding public awareness and a management program these recovery efforts will not properly grow.

Used oil does not only originate from the crankcase drainings of cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, lawn mowers, boats, and planes, but from all types of machinery and industrial applications as well, which may make contamination more likely. Re-refining represents the best attempt to return used oil to its original state.

The draining, recycling, and reusing of used oil filters, bottles and antifreeze also requires increased private, public and government support. Every motor vehicle administration in the U.S. could, at a minimum, promote such recovery.

Increased awareness is essential to stimulate greater support in extending oil changes beyond every 3,000 miles (when applicable), using synthetic oils, utilizing reusable oil filters, oil bottle recovery and used oil and antifreeze recycling. We should follow Valvoline’s lead in purchasing re-refined or recycled motor oils. Further, private/public cooperative efforts may prevent used oil pollution, save energy, and create new forms of commerce. The future will show how used oil can be used again and again.

Ironically as oil supply decreases current interest in addressing this pollution is at an all-time low point both in national awareness and measurement. Two friends of mine, with whom I helped build a used oil recycling plant, later revolutionized golf cleats by founding a company called Softspikes. How can we put so much energy into banning metal golf spikes, while all over the world still dump automotive by-products that menace our drinking water?

Americans still remain in the dark about the present improper disposal of motor oil and other auto by-products. Used oil is not being properly managed, and public health and the environment are being impacted.

How we choose to address the challenge to engage millions of DIY consumers in not just the disposal of oil but hundreds of other toxic products will have significant ramifications. If we can get the golf world to change their type of shoes, then there is hope that we can convince Americans to change their behavior and recycle their automotive by-products.